A few thoughts on the Q&A screening of Gareth Edwards' Monsters that I caught the other night. I was very impressed by the film, and not only because of it's surprisingly solid production values achieved on such a low budget. From a purely objective point of view it's a good movie however you cut it - intelligent, absorbing and full of intricate detail, all beautifully captured by Edwards' masterful camera work.
Monsters is unique in it's genre of kaiju-influenced cinema (e.g. Cloverfield), in that it's a genuine character piece first and foremost, a simple drama played out against a lavish background of grand science fiction. The setting of a fantastic new reality is taken completely for granted by the two central characters, due to it's "distance" from their lives, and it's constant, over-saturated coverage in the media. They are desensitised to this reality in exactly the same way that we feel removed from the war in Afghanistan. It's just something unpleasant that most of us are only exposed to in sanitised snippets on TV. This clever conceit is what makes Monsters so effective, by making the SF concept a normal part of it's everyday reality, it brings it to life in a very realistic way.
The film also has a unique tone and structure for a creature feature. The focus on it's two characters, instead of constant action, allows Monsters to drift along at a more languid pace, giving the story plenty of room to breath while allowing the characters to develop more fully. There's a refreshing amount of stillness and beauty in the way it's shot and edited, a credit to Edwards' skill with a camera.
This multi-talented young Englishman is definitely one to watch. He comes from a visual FX background and much has been made of his home-produced CG creature work for this film. I was expecting a standard on about the same level as Australia's Undead (the Spierig brothers famously did their extensive CG on a single Mac at home too), but was pleased to see that Edwards' work on Monsters is far more impressive. His work here is actually of a higher standard than much of the rushed CG seen in big budget "spectacle" movies. Monsters proves once and for all that it doesn't matter how big your budget is, if you rush through post production with not enough time, thought and love, you get piss-poor results. Are you listening Big Studios? Shit in = shit out.
Edwards' talents don't end at VFX though. He also wrote, directed, shot and edited his ambitious little monster movie. At the Q&A the other night he was enthusiastic and witty; cracking jokes and generally seeming to enjoy the limelight. Here's a few points of interest that I took away from it:
- A while back some movie website claimed that the budget for Monsters was $15,000, and the figure seems to have stuck as fact. You only have to watch the first five minutes of the film to realise how unlikely that is. My one question for Gareth was to ask him to reveal the actual budget (before marketing etc). He said that the site making that claim simply added up the cost of their equipment, ignoring all other expenses, such as travel for the cast & crew of five to it's shooting locations in five countries (Belize, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Mexico and Texas). Not to mention accommodation and the rest. He said that as "no one has been payed yet" it's still too early to give a definitive answer, but when all is said and done the figure will be in the hundreds of thousands (but definitely under $500,000).
- The monsters have a detailed backstory. They came to Earth as spores, trapped in samples collected by a returning unmanned mission to Jupiter's sixth moon Europa. Europa is a young moon with an ice crust, and there's a popular hypothesis that if it still has a molten core, there's a high probability of a mineral rich, life sustaining ocean under the ice. The aliens in the film are aquatic animals from Europa's subterranean ocean.
- Although he was quick to point out that he doesn't think he's achieved this, Edwards said his intention was to make "the most realistic monster movie ever made". Those words were written on the front page of his first draft script.
- After getting Vertigo Films on board as producers, he only had three months to write & cast the film as well as location scouting etc. The shoot was six or eight weeks (can't remember), with a week of pick-ups later on. The first cut of the film was a whopping four and a half hours, requiring eight or nine months to edit. CG and post was four months. This really surprised me as I assumed an indie film as ambitious as this would have taken at least five years to pull together.
- There's a huge amount of fictitious signage, graffiti and murals throughout the movie and I was amazed to find out that it was all CG. Edwards said that whenever he got a good take, he'd end the shot by panning away to a blank wall or empty sky (to later insert planes or helicopters), a practice that completely perplexed the producers when they saw the raw footage!
- The entire crew consisted of himself, a line producer and a sound technician. The cast of two are a real couple.
- Their guerrilla shooting style was completely opportunistic, making use of everything around them to add a sense of realism. All additional actors (including an excellent performance by the "ferry man") were locals who agreed to participate for a few bucks. Although the film was scripted, much of it was improvised around whatever they just happened to shoot. The details of the story changed and evolved depending on the footage they captured.
For example, there's a scene involving some cows that appears to be scripted. In reality the cows just wandered into the shot, so they worked them into the sequence. In one of the Central American countries they shot in, the government surreptitiously assigned a squad of soldiers to follow the crew around (apparently for their protection). This worked perfectly for Edwards, as he started including them in the background, giving the impression of an increased military presence near the alien quarantine zone.
Monsters truly is "the little SF movie that could". Even more so than last year's District 9 or Moon (both of which I love). The slower pace and focus on characters may put off people who are accustomed to the excesses of big studio SF, but I urge everyone reading this to go out and catch it in a theatre if you can. It's not everyday that you get an independent genre feature of this quality, and it really deserves to be supported.
I'm off to see Mexican cannibal drama We Are What We Are tonight. I'll post some thoughts on that soon...